Screening projects carried out in Africa will target diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and malaria.

The U.S. NIH and the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust have pledged some $38 million in funding for a major research project that aims to help identify the genetic and nongenetic components of some of Africa’s most common communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

The five-year Human Heredity and Health in Africa project, or H3Africa, will utilize genetic, clinical, and epidemiologic tools to carry out population-based screening studies focused on disorders such as heart disease, cancer, and malaria. The studies will all be carried out by African researchers funded through program.

NIH will contribute $5 million per year to the multinational project as well as another $750,000 in the current year to help with its initiation. The Wellcome Trust has committed at least another $12 million in funding for H3Africa and will in addition provide administrative help, training, and scientific consultation. The two agencies will be supported further by the African Society for Human Genetics, which is providing in-kind support, particularly with regard to organizing researchers in Africa.

“Most global health research understandably focuses on difficult infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria,” explains Francis S. Collins, M.D., NIH director. “But studies show the developing world increasingly suffers the same common chronic diseases as the West.”

The hope is that adding newly discovered genetic components to existing knowledge will help in the development of new diagnostics and treatment approaches. The greater genetic variability of African populations in comparison with European or Asian populations may also lead to the identification of rare disease-related genetic variations that are relevant worldwide, the agencies suggest.

“H3Africa will be fundamentally different than previous investments in medical research in Africa,” stresses Charles N. Rotimi, Ph.D., director of the NIH’s Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health at the National Human Genome Research Institute. “In the past many research projects simply took samples from Africa and conducted the studies back in Western labs. H3Africa will build the capacity for African researchers to study African populations to solve African problems and will create strong collaborations between African researchers and those in Europe, the U.S., and other parts of the world.”

African researchers selected for funding will be able to set up or bolster local research facilities in their home country. They will use genome-wide scanning and sequencing techniques to identify genetic involvement in the development of target diseases. “We must take advantage of new research approaches such as population studies employing genetic and environmental analyses to understand both communicable and noncommunicable disorders in these important parts of the world,” Dr. Collins adds. “What we learn in Africa about genetic variation and disease will have impacts across the globe.”

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